“I think a lot of times the blog is better than the show,” said Rachel Maddow.
It was Thursday afternoon, and Ms. Maddow was on the phone with Media Mob talking about her team’s newly revamped platform, The Maddow Blog, which quietly launched a few months ago.
“I still feel like we’re in soft-launch phase,” said Ms. Maddow. “It’s really been under the radar. I don’t think we’ve made an effort to let people know it’s there. But it’s incredibly functional for us already.”
Ms. Maddow said that ever since her show debuted at 9 p.m. on MSNBC in September of 2008, she wanted a more substantial Web presence. From the get-go, the network provided a site page for Ms. Maddow’s show. But like many of the Web pages designed for TV news shows, the original site was little more than a glorified video player, designed to rack up streams of MSNBC segments.
For much of its brief history, the genre of blogs penned by big name TV news anchors (and the staffs on their shows) has been profoundly underwhelming. Blame it on the competing requirements of the two jobs. Projecting steady, polished authority on the one hand. Tossing off quick-twitch, instigation on the other. Traditionally, most TV news-anchor blogs have launched with lots of hype and soon settled into a comfortably numb mix of self-promotion and earnest cud-chewing. (The one notable exception is GretaWire, that strangely fonted fountain of fun created by Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren.)
The Maddow Blog is one of the more ambitious attempts to date by an MSNBC star trying to rise above the low expectations of the genre.
“We felt like we had an audience that was very wired,” said Ms. Maddow. “But we weren’t providing a really hospitable environment for them.”
Late last year, an opening came up on Ms. Maddow’s show for a new segment-producer head. After some discussion, Ms. Maddow and her team decided they’d rather spend the money on someone who would focus primarily on the Web. Eventually, they hired Laura Conaway, a former Village Voice editor who more recently had been working for the star-crossed NPR-for-young-people show The Bryant Park Project. (The former host of the BPP, Alison Stewart, is married to Bill Wolff, the executive producer of The Rachel Maddow Show).
Ms. Maddow said that she had long admired Ms. Conaway’s work at the BPP, which had a lively Web presence. “We decided to take away resources from producing the TV show in order to hire Laura,” said Ms. Maddow.
Over the course of several months, Ms. Maddow and her team worked with people at www.msnbc.msn.com to create a staff blog with a look, feel, and metabolism significantly different from the portal’s typical template. The result is a blog that is a distinctive looking mix of political news, liberal analysis, embedded videos (often to non-MSNBC footage), and links to recommended articles.
Currently, Ms. Conaway is the most frequent contributor to The Maddow Blog, which also features the bylines of five or six other staff members on the show, including Ms. Maddow, Mr. Wolff, and web producer Will Femia. “I want people who work on this show to feel like they have a place to write directly under their own name,” said Ms. Maddow. “It doesn’t all have to be me.”
Ms. Maddow said that she thinks of the blog as a way of capturing, sharing, and enhancing the rollicking conversation that goes on among her staff on a daily basis as they prepare for that night’s show. Rather than serving as a distraction or as a perfunctory obligation, said Ms. Maddow, the new blog has already begun to provide fodder for the TV show.
“The blog has ended up being an engine for the show,” said Ms. Maddow. “It’s a new way to collect information. We post every morning a bunch of stuff we’re reading to get ready for the show. People get on-line and point us to new stuff. We’ve had a lot of story ideas for the show generated by people commenting on the blog.”
Ms. Maddow said that so far the major concern of the digital folks–that the text-based re-design would result in a drop in the substantial number of people coming to the old Web site to watch segments from the show–hasn’t materialized.
“We’ve done fine,” said Ms. Maddow. “We haven’t paid a price in terms of overall video clicks. That hasn’t suffered. And we’re able to do all of this additional content that is, for me, rewarding and rewards the show in terms of ideas.”
“We also do just some dumb stuff on there,” said Ms. Maddow. “It’s a good place to be goofy.”